Rectangle after rectangle filled with a video from another player's webcam. There was Darius Miller and Patrick Patterson, Daniel Orton and Ramon Harris. Even John Wall and DeMarcus Cousins, now multi-time All-Stars and multi-multi-millionaires, took part.
This was the early days of the coronavirus pandemic, when group Zoom calls were all the rage, rallying together high school reunions and former coworkers across the country. On this particular video chat, members of the 2009-10 Kentucky men's basketball team were reconvening to commemorate the good old days, the highs and the lows, like reaching the Elite Eight of the NCAA tournament, only to fall to West Virginia. "We all still communicate," Patterson says.
A little box appeared in the top-right corner of the screen, announcing the conversation was being recorded. Someone said they were planning to put it online like it was the cast of a television show regrouping for a table read. Then the profanity started flying. "I laughed," former Kentucky forward Jon Hood says. "You can just go ahead and cancel that. You're not going to be able to use any of this."
That Wildcats team remains especially close, particularly Wall, Cousins and Eric Bledsoe. "They call themselves the Three Amigos," Hood says.
Wall and Cousins were groomsmen in Bledsoe's wedding. So when Cousins signed as a free agent in Houston, just a few days before the Rockets traded Russell Westbrook to the Washington Wizards for Wall and a protected first-round pick, it marked a celebration for many in Big Blue Nation that rivaled the dance floor at Bledsoe's reception. "Knowing those guys, I'm sure they got after it," Patterson laughs. Shortly after late-night news broke of Wall being shipped to Houston, Kentucky's official Twitter account even tweeted, "Love it when #LaFamilia reunites in the NBA."
They are legitimate best friends. The only way this scenario could be any sweeter for Wall and Cousins is if their third amigo had come into the fold. "I know Eric Bledsoe is mad right now, though," Hood teases. "I'm definitely a little jealous," says Patterson. "I've always dreamed that we could have a reunion."
Those who best know the two All-Stars believe this moment comes at the perfect inflection point of both their careers.
"They're both kind of going through transition right now. To have each other, I think it's pretty cool," says Rod Strickland, an assistant coach on that 2009-10 Kentucky team. "They're like brothers. I think it's great for them to be together."
Cousins, of course, did not see a single game during the 2019-20 season. Now 30 years old, he missed 86 games between 2017-19, and he sat the entirety of this past season, suffering a torn Achilles, a torn quad and a torn ACL all in a span of 18 months. Wall, having recently turned 30 himself, has not appeared in game action since Dec. 26, 2018, dealing with a range of injuries, mainly his own ailing Achilles and knee.
By all accounts, the two former All-Stars have relied heavily on one another, on their deep friendship. Whenever members of their Kentucky team connect, they move very quickly past basketball and discuss each other's families, their struggles and their successes. "I'm sure they've had conversations that we'll never know about," Strickland says.
They appear to have reached the other side of those dark days.
Cousins received interest from multiple teams to join their Orlando bubble outfit but opted instead to continue resting ahead of this important season. Kentucky folks have been sharing videos of his offseason workouts. They see he's a mirror image of the agile, dexterous center who dominated opponents in Sacramento. Cousins is firing from distance like a bona fide three-point sniper. "He looks amazing, he looks confident, he looks hungry," Patterson says.
Wall was working mostly in Miami with Wizards assistant Alex McLean and his personal trainer, Stan Remy. He'd run pickup at Remy's gym, The Miami Perimeter, in Medley, Florida, whipping crossovers against other NBA talents, and then remain on the court upward of two hours after everyone else departed. The explosion has returned to his legs. "He looks back to his old self," Remy says.
When the trainer reached his client by phone the evening news broke of Wall's trade to Houston, the guard's thrill about playing with Cousins again was palpable all the way from D.C. "Just listening to it in his voice, he's excited about the opportunity to link up with his friend," Remy says. By all accounts, Boogie is chomping at the bit to reconnect their pick-and-roll duet.
As pros, Wall and Cousins merely dreamed of playing together once again. They entered the league in June 2010, one month before LeBron James' decision to join the Miami Heat shocked the NBA and definitively ushered in the league's player-empowerment era. It wasn't until recently this idea started to emerge as a potential reality for them.
The Wizards considered and researched trading for Cousins before Sacramento ultimately dealt him to New Orleans in 2017, but they never made any serious offer. Washington never thought Cousins would accept just the mid-level exception when he signed with Golden State the next summer. Then Cousins' injuries prevented him from ever becoming a serious candidate to join Washington's roster.
But now they're together in Houston.
One person with knowledge of Wall's thinking strongly denied he ever asked out of Washington, but the guard, by all accounts, is relishing this unexpected reunion with Cousins. If the big man can return to form, if Wall can stay healthy, perhaps the Rockets—still starring perennial MVP candidate James Harden, mind you—might have something to say in the Western Conference playoff picture.
"Because DeMarcus hasn't played in a while, people may forget how good he is. If he's healthy, you have an All-Star," Strickland says. And about Wall: "A lot of times you need a change of scenery to rejuvenate yourself."
Houston's pieces should theoretically be a seamless fit offensively. Remy trains both Harden and Wall in the offseason. To any question about chemistry, it's been a long time since Wall has even played a meaningful minute of basketball. "All he cares about is winning," Remy says. "This move to Houston, no matter who's on the roster, he's going to play winning basketball."
And the connection between Wall and Cousins has lifted a superteam once before.
Cousins and Wall have always seen the same dog inside one another. They arrived at Kentucky determined to demolish the SEC, together, and christen John Calipari's era of one-and-done superteams. "They set the precedent for what was to follow," says Tod Lanter, a former Wildcats walk-on. "They had a different attitude."
From their first practice, Cousins and Wall established the tenacity of Kentucky's program. Calipari organized a series of fast-break drills, pushing his players to attack and attack and attack in transition. Typically, he puts defenses at a disadvantage, like in the textbook three-on-two, two-on-one drill. But on this day, Kentucky's two alphas had other ideas. "Everything got blocked," says Strickland, the assistant coach. "It was J-Wall as a guard running down people. It was Cousins. It was just intensity."
"I just remember how they pushed each other when they first got to campus," adds Orlando Antigua, another assistant on that Kentucky team. "They did everything together, whether that was coming in to getting extra shots to getting extra conditioning in."
Other players fell in line. Bledsoe once told an opponent they'd meet in the parking lot postgame. Cousins barked to Auburn that the Tigers were down 25 before the contest even started. The speedy point guard would only further kindle the big man's fire. "The biggest thing I remember is them being able to get on each other. And I mean get on each other," Strickland says. "Not many people can give and take that in a relationship."
That January, Kentucky was hosting Vanderbilt, and Cousins seemed to be having trouble with the Commodores' 6'10" center, A.J. Ogilvy. So during one media timeout, UK assistant John Robic approached the Wildcats' talented tower. He nodded over toward Ogilvy. "Did you hear what he said about you?" the coach asked Cousins. Robic proceeded to make up a string of alleged insults Ogilvy had never actually spat. But Cousins began to stew. And when he kept marching to the water cooler, Wall stopped him, as well. "He said that about you," the point guard confirmed.
Cousins went on to finish with 21 points, 10 rebounds, two steals and an emphatic block on Ogilvy, replete with the meanest of mugs. "It's because John provoked him," says Hood, the Kentucky forward.
They had each other's backs. "Cal always talks about who you're taking with you," Antigua says. "If you're gonna go, go together. And they embodied that." In the SEC Championship, when Wall missed what would have been a game-winning three, it was Cousins who scooped the rebound and flipped up a bucket to send the game into overtime. As the horn blared, they raced down the court. Wall leaped into Cousins' outstretched arms, and their delirious celebration crashed onto the hardwood, even with five decisive minutes still left to be played. "That said it all," Strickland says. "That was those two guys."
"That's the iconic, ultimate clip that describes their relationship and the love for each other," Patterson says.
On paper, Wall presents an ideal pairing with Harden in the Rockets backcourt.
During Wall's last All-Star season in 2017-18, he shot 43.8 percent on 80 catch-and-shoot threes, according to NBA.com. Westbrook shot just 29.1 percent on 110 standstill attempts last year. And when Harden goes to the bench, Wall can prop up Houston's second unit in a more similar style rather than toggling between two different schemes, one of which had Westbrook spending much of the game bulldozing toward the rim.
An optimized Cousins is any ball-handler's dream pick-and-roll partner. He's a physical brute who can plow any defender. He's more than capable of fooling opponents in dribble handoffs. He's a danger if you leave him free to pop or allow him to roll down the paint. Even amid all his injuries, Cousins, remember, still hung 11 points, 10 rebounds, six assists and two blocks in the Warriors' Game 2 win over the Toronto Raptors in the 2019 NBA Finals.
Perhaps this will be the perfect coda for Wall and Cousins' deep friendship, which has withstood the twists and turns of the NBA. The league, more than ever, remains a complicated business. Harden and Westbrook's own reunification with the Rockets ended as quickly as it began.
And over a decade after Wall and Cousins touched down in Lexington, primed to irreparably change the power dynamics within college basketball, they remain as bonded as ever. "This basketball game, this can get tricky. You can lose family, friends, business partners, everyone," Strickland says. "The fact they're still together, that means a whole lot."